If Marshall were alive today…

Would he have a plan? What would it be?

George C. Marshall (1880-1959), soldier and statesman, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. Yesterday’s post provided excerpts from his Nobel lecture. He is credited as the architect of the Allied victory in World War II. But today he is probably best known for the eponymous Marshall Plan, which America and Europe put into force following the war. More formally known as the European Recovery Plan, the 1947 Marshall Plan had these goals: rebuild a war-devastated region; remove trade barriers; modernize industry; and make Europe prosperous again. Toward these ends, America paid out $13 billion dollars over four years – said to be the equivalent of $258B today [a little more than 1% of GDP per year].


Here are some other comparisons to the present day. At the end of World War II, and ten years of economic depression, surely America had every right to feel poor, every right to say that a $13B investment in other countries was out of the question. The money was clearly needed at home. Prior to the War, U.S. national debt stood at 50% of GDP; after the war it was more like 120%. Today, U.S. debt stands at about 100% of GDP. Not dissimilar, is it?

Politically? Things were also pretty much the same back in 1947, the year the Marshall Plan was enacted, as they are today…an unpopular Democratic president, Truman [President Obama, take heart…Truman is rather highly regarded today] besieged by a hostile Republican House and Senate. [That’s why the ERP is known as the Marshall Plan instead of the Truman Plan.]

Suppose today’s president were to say to every American that the best thing we could do for our world and for ourselves would be to transfer $258B abroad…and invest a significant piece in those countries where we’ve been at war for the past several years.

Talk about a non-starter!

Yet historians tell us that postwar U.S. investment in Europe had the practical effect of containing communism inside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. At the time? Marshall and those in the State Department certainly hoped for this result, but at the same time argued that putting Europe back on its feet was simply the right thing to do.

What was the value of their decision to do the right thing? Priceless.


Recall his Nobel lecture. Marshall’s goal was world peace. And he saw three essentials: (1) education – not just brainwashing, instilling in the youth of every country the interpretation of history and reality according to the cultural preferences of that country, but a basis of facts. (2) A national feeling and concern for the problems of others that stemmed from our history as a nation of immigrants. (3) A preference for democracy of the most basic and inclusive sort.

Now, let’s try to put these all together to see the parallels to the present day. What would Marshall (and others of that time) see as today’s defining challenges? Would they have a plan? What would they do?

Here’s one possibility. First, they might see a world that’s been at war for decades. Some of that war has been of the especially horrific conventional kind. The conflict in Sri Lanka. In eastern Europe. In Rwanda and the Congo, the Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa. The FARC guerillas of Columbia. War and turmoil across the Middle East.

But some of the devastation has been environmental. Degradation of the land. Deforestation. Desertification. The ravaging of the landscape for natural resources. Despoiling of the oceans…and the dramatic consumption of marine life. Pollution of the air, both locally and globally.

The U.S., too, can feel at times like a war zone. Here the clash of ideas forms the battleground. The warfare has been mental and emotional. We polarize our conversations and they morph into argument. Efforts to find common ground are scorned as weakness. “We” struggle to see basic decency in “others” – immigrants, under-represented groups, scientists, non-scientists, Republicans, Democrats – you name it/them, we can find fault with it/them. We see life as “zero-sum,” and then try desperately to hang on to what we’ve got. The result? Americans go to bed each night spiritually drained.

How to rebuild this “war-devastated” world?  What could we do today that would be effective, quick, and inexpensive?

The starting point? As George Marshall hinted, it’s spiritual. But that’s a subject for another day, and another blog. Interested nonetheless? You can go back and read his lecture; the rudiments are there.

But with that starting point, how to rebuild a devastated world, modernize industry, in short – prosper? Chances are good Marshall would see the need for something akin to what we call a green economy or sustainable development today. And he might see the opportunity to kickstart that by observing the Earth, studying its workings, learning how to predict its full and detailed behavior at all locations, as a global whole, on all time horizons. He might seek policies to underpin that work and insure that it continued uninterrupted. He might instill in the next generation of leaders an awareness of and appreciation for the Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat. He might argue for place-based trial-and-error-learning and the use of social networking to accelerate adoption of best practices with respect to living on the real world. Having got this far, he would almost certainly suggest that we undertake all this work cooperatively with other nations should they choose to work with us…and that we share/give away all we learn to others who have need of it.

The cost of all these steps? No more than 1% of GDP per year. Doable in Marshall’s time, still doable today.

Since he’s no longer here, these responsibilities – and opportunities – fall to us.

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One Response to If Marshall were alive today…

  1. Pingback: A tale of two projects | Living on the Real World

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